After last year 80s warfare, this year's COD jumps back further with Call of Duty: Vanguard. It's a take on WW2 that looks spectacular so far in the Modern Warfare engine (which Black Ops Cold War skipped), and channels a far more raw take on the Second World War than the usual flag waving heroism. From a diverse cast, to beautifully atmospheric locations, and the genuine horror overtones to some sequences, Vanguard has a grim life to it that feels far removed from the old yee-ha beach storming shootouts into French villages.
But it's also the first big game announced under the shadow of the Activision Blizzard lawsuit, leading Sledgehammer studio head Aaron Halon to open our presentation with a statement on those events. It was an unusual but welcome step to confront the issue head on (you can read the full statement here), with Halon saying that "the stories and pain people have shared are devastating" before concluding that "there's no easy way to switch gears to talking about our game. So please pardon me for the awkward transition". And, like Halon, you'll have to excuse my clumsy pivot...
A lot of games like to talk about the 'horrors of war', especially with historical or real world inspirations like World War 2, but that usually translates into something fairly blunt: dead bodies, blood, a character dying while holding the player's hand and maintaining very deliberate eye contact with the camera. ("Tell Ma (gasp) tell Ma I…." [breathy rattle].) Call of Duty: Vanguard seems to be focusing intently on the 'horror' part – getting across a feeling of impactful terror and danger in a dark, nighttime introduction that doesn't wave obvious Second World War references under your nose.
World War 2-inspired entertainment can also often come across with a slight silver screen sheen of heroism, as soldiers salute flags with axe-chop arms. But none of that is apparent in the breathless desperation of Call of Duty: Vanguard's action. The gameplay opens with Operation Tonga, a real nighttime attack that took place just before D-Day, and follows the game's lead character Arthur "King" Kingsley – a Black British paratrooper loosely inspired by the real life Sidney Cornell. What follows is a chaotic and tense scrabble for survival through dark environments and dusty abandoned houses.
There's a pitch black forest, lit by flames, that seems to channel The Last of Us 2's first Seraphite encounter. A shootout has you firing at shadows flitting past windows and floorboards gaps, feeling more like the lycans arriving in Resident Evil Village than Nazis attacking. Tying it all together, a desperate run through occupied France, alone and lost, while German soldiers swarm, hunting and killing straggling, dazed paratroopers who've barely survived their landing. It's a more evocative debut than the usual scenes of soldiers keenly pressed up against walls shouting out enemy positions.
From the moment Arthur Kingsley jumps from his burning plane there's fire, bodies, and a sense of madness that this actually ever happened in real life. The forest section I mentioned sees you moving through trees lit in dark shades of orange from flaming plane wreckage. That Modern Warfare engine continues to produce incredible results – there's a texture to the air as faint light plays across smoke and dust that feels tangible, and the lighting captures exactly the same 'flames in the dark' tone to Ellie's first encounter with the Seraphites. The first enemy contact in Vanguard mirrors that reference further as a German soldier violently gores a paratrooper hanging in the trees.
There's a strong survival horror feel to this debut Call of Duty: Vanguard gameplay. Having lost all his gear in the drop, Arthur finds himself holed up in the basement of an abandoned house with a stolen German rifle and a handful of bullets. As soldiers surround the building, he's left potshoting shadows that pass across the floorboards overhead, or between partially cracked window shutters. A lot of historical shooters have worn the Second World War like a theme park mascot outfit, but if I hadn't been told what I was watching here, it would only be the German shouting that gave anything away. Game director Josh Bridge introduced this whole section talking about the importance of conveying a "sense of desperation, of survival", something that's evident throughout – there's no shaky handy cam found footage camera work here, but everything on screen conveys that sense of panicked urgency.
While Arthur is the main character of the Call of Duty: Vanguard campaign, fighting across the Western Front, he's eventually the leader of an early WW2 spec ops team. The rest of that group is formed by three other playable characters that fight across North Africa, the Eastern Front, and the Pacific. Overall, there's mention of the jungles of the Pacific Theater, African deserts, Stalingrad during the winter, Normandy, and Tuscany. While Sledgehammer absolutely dodged a question about vehicles in such a wide reaching campaign – making an odd reference to the "live season of content coming" to share more – we know there will be at least one flying mission set in the Battle of Midway.
Interestingly, like Arthur, all of the main characters are inspired by real people. There's Polina Petrova, a Russian sniper based on Lyudmila Pavlichenko who, with 309 confirmed kills, is the most successful female sniper of all time. Wade Jackson is a pilot based on Vernon Micheel, who bombed and sunk two Japanese aircraft carriers in the Battle of Midway. And, finally, Lucas Riggs, who's based on Charles Upham, a New Zealander who was the only person to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during World War 2. Campaign creative director David Swenson mentions the "lengths we went to to find the voice of these characters" highlighting both the actor behind Arthur, Chiké Okonkwo, and award winning writer Tochi Onyebuchi's parts in helping the team "identify and find the voice for Arthur Kingsley".
Where things get a little odd is that these four characters ultimately come together as a special operations team, and are sent into Berlin to tackle something called Project Phoenix. What this actually is isn't clear – both in-game and from Sledgehammer itself. Swenson describes how, at the close of the war, "elements of the Nazi Party were desperately trying to figure out how to keep the Party functioning." He concludes, somewhat enigmatically, that "Project Phoenix was something Allied command heard about, wasn't sure what it was, and felt it created this potential threat of identifying a potential successor to Hitler." When I questioned him directly about it, all he would say was that Arthur and his team's final mission is to "go identify what Project Phoenix is" adding, "we're excited for players to have that experience." It's hard, given the rumors of alternate-timelines, not to wonder if things might get a little freaky...
I mentioned right at the start how good Call of Duty: Vanguard looks in the Modern Warfare engine, but it's worth repeating. The lighting, smoke, and particles bring levels to life in an impressive way, with the environments as much a character as any of the actual people in the game. During the gameplay I saw every bullet fired performed – from splintering wood to the dust thrown up by impacts, or books and objects flying from shelves – gunfire brings Vanguard's spaces to life. Multiplayer creative director Greg Reisdorf explains that "it wasn't just about pulling that trigger and feeling it in the weapon, [it's] about everything that that bullet is hitting along its trajectory in the world, [and] how that world reacts and responds is something that we're calling reactive gameplay environments." As well as looking great, there's a tactical edge to it too. "You can break through boards," explains Reisdorf, "you can open new pathways, and use those to your advantage, use them tactically."
In terms of the actual multiplayer itself, Greg and the team at Sledgehammer are teasing more than revealing right now. There will be 20 maps at launch focusing on 6v6 multiplayer (with four maps designed for 2v2). There's also a new mode called Champion Hill, which Reisdorf describes as "our big tentpole mode", adding that it's a mix of "Battle Royale plus Gunfight" with a single map and teams fighting to win. There's also going to be Vanguard Zombies, with Treyarch leading development of what will be the series' first crossover, with a story that will act as a prologue to Black Ops Zombies.
The big multiplayer news though is the much rumored shake-up of Call of Duty: Warzone. Raven will be adding a whole new Warzone map "this year" according to Halon. This will also include Vanguard's tech for "seamless weapon integration and operator balance" as well as (somehow) creating a 'metaverse' to connect Vanguard, Black Ops, Cold War, and Modern Warfare. Perhaps most importantly, there will be an all new anti-cheat system coming when Vanguard arrives in Verdansk. You can read more on all the Vanguard Warzone details here.
I wasn't entirely sure about a return to the Second World War – Sledgehammer's 2017 effort, Call of Duty: WW2, was fine, but felt a little too much of a novelty after the future-chasing sci-fi of the games that preceded it. Despite a decent run up, it couldn't quite stick the landing narratively, and never felt entirely comfortable trying to shape a 1940s Call of Duty experience following on from the likes of Infinite Warfare and Black Ops 3. Call of Duty: Vanguard, however, feels more assured. It's atmosphere and tone work regardless of the setting, especially in that amazing looking engine. And, based on what I've seen of it in action, I'm looking forward to seeing more on how the team and the tech manage to realize the rest of the locations and conflicts.